Darklaw – Episode 54

WHEN SHE ENTERED Featherwood, it was nothing like she remembered. It was empty.

The smell of death lingered, though the years had thinned the odor. A few walls still stood. The blacksmith’s forge sat like a sentry over the scattered field of debris. In the distance, Kami could see one other object standing above the destruction: the statue of Avestine beside the community well. She took a step toward it, thought of Avestar, and turned back.

She thought of her mother.

She had discovered slave rolls at Sahrdon, but even those Avestar allowed her to see had no real names, just as Malika had told her. She walked through the street, recalling how one pile of burnt wood had been a store and another, a stable. When she reached the cinders at the far edge of town that had been the brothel, she found two walls still standing. In heaps in the middle of the building, where most of the ashes had blown away, were broken struts, pieces of the tavern’s tables, and human bones. Some bits of clothing brought a sense of recognition.

She kept telling herself that her mother could have survived. She could have fled the village even after the soldiers came.

Kami had been lucky. She had seen the legion while she was hunting, and stayed away. She wondered if she could have saved even a few of the women, pushed them out the back door, into the forest where she could lead them to safety. But no one would have accompanied her. They would have cast their luck with men because no one ever thought of the forest as safe. Even her mother had scolded her endlessly for running off. Kami thought them fools for not seeing where true danger lay, but she had come to accept that the forest was, indeed, a dangerous place—for everyone but her.

Then she saw it, a pile of burnt bones, a quilted red dress, a locket of silver. The soldiers had been so arrogant that they hadn’t even pillaged the place before moving on. She fell to her knees.

She had trouble lifting the locket between her wrists but managed to chip some crust from its face. With her teeth, she opened it to find a small clump of hair, singed from the heat that had once engulfed the place. The hair was hers, cut by her mother when they had moved together into the attic. Her mother had said she would always hold it close to her heart, to remember her little girl before she became a woman.

Kami remembered the present she had received at the same time, one she had long since lost. Many times, Kami had snuck a peek at the delicate handkerchief in her mother’s drawer, and when her mother had handed it to her one day, Kami realized it was the finest thing she had ever seen and the only memento she had of her father. Her mother told her to keep the handkerchief as close as she would keep the locket, for one day, her father would return for it.

But Kami had lost the handkerchief long ago, somewhere in town or forest. She tried not to think about her carelessness and cursed herself whenever she did.

She pressed the hair in the locket to her nose, smelled the char. She had thought she was no longer capable of any feeling except the sensations in her sex and belly. Compulsion had been driving her until now, but this was unexpected. It was unbearable.

She dragged her blunt wrist through the bones and leaned forward, pressing her face into the black-and-red cloth. The smell of smoke was strong, as if the fire had only just happened. The odor of perfume was faint, more memory than scent.

She looked around and saw moments of terror unleashed by cruelty. Memories that weren’t hers, seen through the eyes of creatures who couldn’t think. Horrible, meaningless death.

Everything was black. Everywhere she looked was black, from the charred streets and barren landscape, from the empty ground to the empty sky, from outside herself to the deepest part inside. Whether her eyes were open or closed, all turned black. She tried to shake off the feeling of compression, of suffocation, and then even her own body became black.

Sometime later, she opened her eyes and wasn’t sure where she was. It had been a lifetime since she had run among trees, danced to seductive drums, and laughed beside creeks. Vague memories stirred in her, and she didn’t know why they were so vague. She recalled pain and realized she felt nothing now.

She watched streams of beasts cutting through the forest below like rips in green cloth. Unified in some unnatural way, beasts of every kind stepped near enough to feast on each other, but they didn’t. They were pursuing a different prey. She knew, then, that she had sent them after that prey.

She was on a high hill, and in the distance, she could see the walls of Fivefold Woke. The last of a company of Darklaw soldiers was below, running toward the sea.

Two dozen wolves, four bears, six bobcats, and a score of hawks pursued thirty-three men. She could hear their breathing, their occasional shouts and screams. She could feel their hearts pounding. Smell their sweat. She grew hungry.

Looking inward gave her a better view of the forest. When she closed her eyes, she saw monkeys and rats, hives of bees and ant mounds, and as she saw them, they saw her. She thought of the soldiers charging toward them, and the beasts left their homes to pursue the path of her desire. Unnatural swarms killed the men in a most natural way, eaten piece-by-piece by opportunistic hunters.

Kami watched the primal scene below her, curious but unmoved. As she stood watching, she began to notice her own watching. She was thinking about herself and that in itself was a curious thing. Watching herself. How could she do that? As she thought about thinking, she remembered she was a woman, not a falcon or a bear or a wolf.

She remembered roaming, a confinement, hands. She looked down and found her hands were gone. In the valley below, the screams had ceased.

She dropped her arms and watched the hunters finishing their meals. The twinge in her gut was uncomfortable, unfamiliar. She didn’t like what she was seeing, but she didn’t know why. Nothing was stalking her or eating her, not even the wind, which had been cutting through her earlier until she wrapped the pelt of a bear around her shoulders.

Death was all around, which meant life was, too. Humble creatures foraged, returning sanity to the land, to her. And then she felt a tickle. Someone was alive.

She gazed iceward. Her beasts were sated, but she wouldn’t chastise them. They didn’t belong to her, after all. She was merely their guide, leading them to the satisfaction of their natural appetites. But then she sensed minds, and she reached out to find a hundred heartbeats, a lake of sweat, and so many breaths it sounded like fire in her ears.

More intruders.

No one was in sight, but a group marched toward her, perhaps two days distant. These soldiers were curious not rapacious, but they were in her kingdom now. They didn’t belong here, and she didn’t want them.

She peered down into the valley, searching for beasts that weren’t sated and found more insects, things that by their very nature were never sated. A swarm of black flies answered her call, and she followed their progress across the corpses and into the trees, along the creeks, to the great fork of the Wealth River. More flies joined their short journey, until the sky buzzed. They journeyed the distance to the intruders, and she sat down to rest as she waited for what they would find.

She had been dozing when the curses and screams of the men attacked by the flies fell like rain on her skin—refreshing, purifying. Her mind drifted across the chaos, saw fearful faces, horrified eyes. And then she touched something blue. Blue like the sea. Like the sky. Like the sun. Arujan. Her mind returned to hover around a figure covered and huddling. The person was sweating, her heart pounding, but not with fear, with anger. She was screaming. Screaming Kami’s name.

Published in Darklaw |
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